The Universal Solution

An interview with Aprodicio Laquian

To solve the problems plaguing the Downtown Eastside, human settlement expert Aprodicio Laquian is advocating a plan that explores successful development models in the city, the region and the world.

Aprodicio Laquian is an emeritus professor of human settlement at the University of British Columbia, and author of Beyond Metropolis, a book exploring ways to improve the lives of slum-dwellers in mega-cities such as Mumbai and Manila. He moved to Vancouver from New York in 1991.

When was the first time you saw the Downtown Eastside? What surprised you?

I first saw the Downtown Eastside in 1976 during the first United Nations Conference on Human Settlements – Habitat I. I was accompanying a delegation of leaders of squatter and slum-dweller organizations from Manila and they asked me to show them a Canadian low-income area. I was not surprised at what I saw in the Downtown Eastside. Still, I could not help but wonder how a beautiful and affluent city like Vancouver could allow a place like the Downtown Eastside to deteriorate when there are so many successful models of inner-city redevelopment that Vancouver city authorities could emulate.

What is the root of the problems plaguing the Downtown Eastside?

The root of the problems plaguing the Downtown Eastside is the concentration of poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, poor housing, prostitution, petty crime, and mental illness in the area. This high concentration may be traced to developments in other parts of Vancouver like Expo that have reduced the availability of affordable housing until only the Downtown Eastside remains. It will most likely continue because the Downtown Eastside acts as a magnet for people from other parts of Canada and even the United States who are afflicted with personal, economic and social problems and are looking for a place where they will belong.

Why has decades of heavy spending by governments failed to fix the problems?

The serious problems of the Downtown Eastside are exacerbated by two factors. First, residents in other parts of Vancouver do not seem to mind the concentration of people with serious problems in the Downtown Eastside provided these problems do not affect them in their own neighbourhoods – an interesting case of not-in-my-back-yard-ism. Second, activist supporters of the Downtown Eastside strongly oppose the redevelopment of the area, calling it gentrification that they say will interfere with the people’s chosen life style and violate their basic human rights. Supporters of the Downtown Eastside also claim that it is a functioning and viable community and developing it will destroy the residents’ sense of community.

The first factor is a false premise because the problems in the Downtown Eastside are not confined to the place. This is shown in the high rate of petty theft and other crimes against property in other parts of Vancouver, the gang-related murders attributed to syndicates engaged in the drug trade, and the persistence of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C among drug addicts and commercial sex workers who infect people outside the Downtown Eastside.

The second argument that the Downtown Eastside is a viable community that should not be developed is hard to defend because of the unique conditions in the Downtown Eastside.

What must be done to fix the problems in the Downtown Eastside?

A comprehensive solution requiring coordinated action among residents and supporters of the Downtown Eastside, City of Vancouver, province of B.C. and the federal government is needed. The solution should not be focused on the Downtown Eastside alone but integrated with developments in the whole city and the Lower Mainland.

Some specific components of this comprehensive strategy include the following: Deal with serious cases of poor health, mental illness, and drug addiction first. This will require re-institutionalization of individuals who are not able to live independently because of personal and other problems.

Social housing should continue to be built in the Downtown Eastside but it should be mixed in and integrated with affordable housing for middle-income people as well as high-end luxury condominiums. A more balanced housing stock will make the Downtown Eastside a more viable and vibrant community.

An inner-city redevelopment program should be formulated for the Downtown Eastside. Such a program should include: A mix of housing that includes high-end condos, medium-priced units and at least 30 per cent of social housing; A heritage conservation program that will renovate and preserve properties that will maintain the cultural features of the community; Employment opportunities in the area focused on the service, entertainment and tourism industries; Upgrading of the physical infrastructure, amenities and urban services in the area; and Repopulating the Downtown Eastside area with a more balanced mix of residents.

What must be avoided?

Rash and draconian measures such as sweeping of undesirable persons on the streets of the Downtown Eastside to avoid embarrassing Vancouver authorities, especially during the Olympics.

Fragmented actions such as razing down of old and dilapidated structures, without first formulating and adopting a realistic development plan for the whole Downtown Eastside and other parts of the city and region.

Punitive police action against protesters and demonstrators, especially before and during the 2010 Olympics.

Lack of proper consultation with all stakeholders.

Do you think the Olympics will have a positive or negative impact on the Downtown Eastside?

It depends. If the government authorities and citizens of Vancouver will be mainly interested in avoiding embarrassment when tens of thousands of visitors come to Vancouver for the Olympics, very little will happen. In the Beijing and Seoul Olympics large parts of the inner city areas were demolished to make room for condos and other prestige dwellings. This is not likely to happen in Vancouver as Olympic Village is already being built outside the Downtown Eastside. The current economic crisis that will probably last beyond 2010 will also inhibit projects that may gentrify the Downtown Eastside.

On the other hand, if the authorities and the citizens of Vancouver will look at the Olympics as a stimulus for formulating a comprehensive and more lasting solution to the Downtown Eastside problems then the Olympics will have significant positive effects and impact.

How can your area of expertise help to fix the problems in the Downtown Eastside?

My field of comprehensive community and regional planning is a key discipline in carrying out inner city redevelopment in developing and technologically advanced countries. It upholds the goal of economic, social and environmental sustainability. A solution focused only on the Downtown Eastside will not be sustainable and will most likely fail. A good solution for the Downtown Eastside depends on a comprehensive and well thought out development plan that is integrated with the whole Vancouver-centred region.

Mark Hume
Globe and Mail Update